Sunday, September 24, 2006


The word I like to use to describe what it takes to succeed as a writer is ganas. This is a Spanish word that means "desire"; it's used by teacher Jaime Escalante in the movie Stand and Deliver, and the real Jaime Escalante really did have a banner in his classroom with the word ganas on it. In an interview from 1990, Escalante is quoted as saying:

    Ganas replaces the word in America "gifted." I cannot accept "gifted." You're going to measure IQ -- and I say no. Any student, any [person] to me is gifted. They have something they can do, and I -- especially the students -- I hold them accountable for what they do. And that's where I make the transformation to motivate them to go for mathematics. You become "gifted" from practicing. Practice assures success. I give you a simple equation, and you do it and do it over and over, and you store that information.

He's talking about math, but he's saying basically the same thing as Lyda: that what matters most is that you really want it, so much that you're willing to work really hard.

I took piano lessons as a child. I liked playing the piano, and I was a reasonably talented amateur, but I never had the desire to be a professional musician. I practiced, but never more than 45 minutes a day, and usually more like 30, because it just wasn't something I cared about that much. My sister also played the piano: like me, she was a reasonably talented amateur. My brother, on the other hand, played the trumpet, and when he was 14 years old, he started setting his alarm at 6 a.m. in order to get in a practice session before school, as well as the practice he was already doing after school. That is ganas. Nate went on to attend a conservatory, and became a professional musician, supporting himself through his playing.

(And then he burned out on music, and now he's going to law school. Which just goes to show that this kind of work and desire sometimes leads to a job rather than a hobby, and having a job in the arts can be just as monotonous and draining as a job anywhere else, plus you typically have no health insurance and the pay tends to suck. But, if you discover something else you'd rather do, and you apply that same discipline and drive, you'll probably succeed at that, too.)

Honestly, I don't know if writing talent exists. I've read some bad writers, but I don't know if they're bad writers because the Talent Fairy never left the magic dust on their pillow, or because they haven't worked on it enough. I tend to keep an open mind, particularly if I'm in a workshop setting. My early work was dreadful, and I got better.

When I think about truly bad writing I've seen, I remember a man who showed up on the Speculations Rumor Mill years ago and posted a link to an excerpt from his novel (up on his website). It was terrible -- every science fictional cliche in the book, tossed into a blender, with stilted dialogue and cardboard characters. He got some critique -- not terribly gentle, but not brutal, either. He was outraged. Fuming mad, to the point of calling his critiquers names. He was particularly rude about the fact that some of them hadn't been published, either, so who the hell were they to tell him there was ANYTHING wrong with his writing? Clearly, the real problem was that they were too stupid to understand him. On and on and on.

His fundamental problem was a surplus of arrogance. I think anyone can learn to write, but they have to start out by knowing that they have things to learn.

There are also a lot of people out there who simply don't want to write fiction. And that's fine. Writing is a lot of work and the pay is mostly unimpressive. If you'd rather knit, paint, or go fishing, then by all means, knit, paint, or go fishing. There's no moral imperative to write. The only imperative to write has to come from inside you.


Muneraven said...

I think there is a closer relationship between having a natural aptitude for something and being able to sustain hard work and persistance than most people acknowledge.

I also think that we gravitate to certain activities we have a great aptitude for because we are seeking FLOW. I won't try to explain that here. Wikipedia gives a decent explanation of it:

tate said...


I think I read somewhere that there is a relationship between persistance and "aptitude" (talent, etc.) This is the idea that people who we consider geniuses like Edison, etc. were people who were willing to fail and fail and fail and fail and fail and fail and fail... until they finally got it. The difference in wiring is that these people we call geniuses were never crushed under the rejections/failures, they simply said to themselves, "ah, must tinker more..." until things finally clicked.

So, that's the long way of saying, yeah, I think you're right.